It’s 35 degrees and blue skies in Dubai.
Probably the perfect place for a November music festival. But, strangely, it’s probably some of the headliners’ idea of hell. Strict laws on drugs mean you could land in prison if caught with a grain of anything even remotely illegal, booze is only sold in controlled areas and anything featuring tits or arse is definitely out of the question.
So, did I mention the Happy Mondays head the bill tomorrow night? It could be the blandest or the weirdest performance of their career.
But that’s tomorrow. Today we have their old mates The Farm kicking off the evening ahead of The Futureheads, Doves and Human League, as well as day time sessions from Bicycle Thieves, Sound of Guns, The Dirty Skirts and Aslan. An odd combination for an odd festival setting I’m sure you’ll agree.
And when the bands finish and the sun sets, there’s plenty more fun to be had, including dancing til the wee hours on what was voted the 58th best club in the world in 2009 by DJ Mag – a disc of a club set out on a jetty with a rooftop dance floor boasting 360 degree vies of the city and sea.
This could be the strangest festival in the world. After almost ten hours on a plane, you’d expect a different culture, a different view or at least a feeling of being somewhere different. But Sound City is just a little bit of England transported to a place with better weather.
Almost all of the festival-goers supping £5 a pint beers in the Irish Village – a squeaky-clean sports venue with a capacity of 6,000 and the main site for the festival – are English. All the bands that are playing are English. Every one you meet speaks English. Oh, and the only food you can buy on site is pies!
Yet, because it’s mainly ex-pats here all working in high-flying jobs, it’s also the most conservative festival. Even when headliners Human League take to the stage, it’s easy to stroll straight to the front and get a glimpse of the 80’s wonders in their bright white suits and sparkly dresses.
But setting aside, it’s still a music festival.
Dubai is built on a working culture, so unfortunately for the opening bands, they are pretty much playing to the festival staff and a handful of journalists. I feel particularly sorry for Tim Hassall + August Company, a local band who have a few moments of loveliness, but only have an audience of eight watching them.
A few more people pour in by early evening to hear the poor man’s Cherry Ghost that is Aslan, voted best band in the Meteor Irish Music Awards 2008. A band with the same greatness as Narnia’s lion, the programme says, but the only big thing on stage here is the singer’s ego. They are hugely unoriginal and incredibly dull.
The Farm mark the beginning of the headline acts and, despite the vocals being way too loud, they don’t sound too bad (partly due to the backing track they use to beef up the sound a little). Even though the crowd is still thin on the ground, they have some die-hard fans shouting every word, especially during the better known singles of ‘Stepping Stone’, ‘Groovy Train’ and, of course, ‘All Together Now’.
The rules of no drink on stage and definitely no drugs is a first for the band, but it doesn’t seem to quash their enthusiasm. ‘This is the first time you’d have seen The Farm on stage without alcohol. How are the Monday’s going to get on?’ says front man Peter Hooton, referring to what will inevitably be a very strange Happy Monday’s set on Friday.
The Futureheads follow with their now-stale sounding jagged pop and, while quite an exciting performance, it doesn’t set the world alight. ‘These Are The Days and Nights’ and ‘Hounds of Love’ goes down well, but it somehow seems more out of fashion than The Farm.
The Irish Village is pretty packed by the time Doves take to the stage and there’s a new vibe about the place. The buzz has finally arrived, the beer is flowing and it’s still gloriously warm.
‘Cease The Day’ gets a huge reaction, and one that’s deserved, as does ‘Kingdom of Rust’, played in front of a big screen showing images of London just to make everyone feel a little homesick. But it’s ‘Black and White Town’ and ‘There Goes The Fear’ that are the real highlights.
But while Doves go down a storm, it’s the Human League that everyone is waiting for. It’s fair to say that a large proportion of the crowd is of a certain age and there is many a cry of ‘they’re my hero’. Really? Phil Oakey?
With two synths, electric drums and what can only be described as a Mac booth on stage, all brilliant white, it was the epitome of the 80s, especially as it is more of a Human League greatest hits than any new stuff. Thank God!
‘Get Around Town’, ‘Being Boiled’, ‘Love Action’, a reworked version of ‘Lebanon’ and ‘Human’ have everyone singing at the top of their lungs and, despite a few morons at the front being a bit too bolshy for their own good, the festival is on fine form.
The best is saved until last and the headliners end with ‘Don’t You Want Me’, ‘Keep Feeling Fascination’ and ‘Electric Dreams’. It is enough to impress even a massive 80s hater like me, but I guess that like the rest of the crowd, it just makes you feel like a kid again with no worries and no responsibility. Isn’t that what a festival’s supposed to do?
Friday sees another odd mix of bands, from Gabriella Climi and The Automatic to The Courteeners and Ocean Colour Scene, ending with the sober sober Mondays. It’ll be…interesting!
Words by Gemma Hampson
Photo by Mark Mcnulty
Read a review of Friday at Dubai Sound City HERE.